Almost half a century after spreading fear along the ‘hippie track’ of the 1970s, French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, the ‘Serpent’ of the hit TV series, still haunts the lives of those who have crossed his path.
Now 77 years old and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Nepal since 2003, Sobhraj is suspected of being involved in at least a dozen murders in Asia in the 1970s.
His modus operandi was to charm and befriend his victims – many of whom were star-eyed Western backpackers seeking spirituality – before drugging, robbing and murdering them.
The TV series, produced jointly by the BBC and Netflix, evokes the seedy and scorching Bangkok of the 1970s with sepia tones, flared pants and crowded streets.
French star Tahar Rahim plays Sobhraj, a manipulative and fascinating threat, in a way that is frightening and familiar to one of those who knew him.
– The neighbor –
When Nadine Gires visited the series set in 2019, seeing Rahim in the character of Sobhraj brought back the past.
“I was terrified. I thought he had escaped from prison, that he was coming back to do evil,” she told AFP.
“Everything came back: anger, fear.”
Sobhraj – a Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian descent – arrived in Bangkok in October 1975 with his Canadian girlfriend and an Indian business partner.
They moved into an apartment in the same building as Gires, near the famous Patpong Red Light District in Bangkok.
What became the Serpent’s Lair was demolished years ago, but the disused building that replaced it in the TV series has become a minor tourist attraction.
Gires, 22 at the time, was impressed with Sobhraj – especially when he told him he was a gem trader, a tactic he used to lure cash-strapped backpackers.
âHe was cultured, courteous. As neighbors, it didn’t take us long to get to know each other,â she said. But doubts quickly arose.
“A lot of people were getting sick in his house. I jokingly said to Charles, ‘You put a curse on them.”
But Gires, now 67 and manager of a beach hotel in southern Thailand, says she had no idea what Sobhraj was really doing.
“We thought it was weird, but how could we imagine such a pattern?” she says.
But that all changed on Christmas 1975, when a young Frenchman staying with Sobhraj showed them a safe full of fake passports.
âHe told us, ‘He’s poisoning people.’ He was terrified,â she explains.
“He wasn’t just a crook, a seducer, a tourist thief, but an evil assassin. It had to stop.”
Together with Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, she set out to gather evidence on the slippery Sobhraj, a con artist with multiple identities and adept at covering his tracks.
Gires searched Sobhraj’s apartment and scoured backpacker haunts for clues of missing persons.
In one of the most dramatic and high-tension scenes on the TV show, Sobhraj unexpectedly meets her.
The moment of March 1976 which served as the basis for the scene is still etched in Gires’ memory.
“In a hotel lobby, someone tapped me on the shoulder,” said Gires, who traveled to London to help the writers of the series.
“It was him. It was the most terrifying moment of my life.”
Fearing for her life, she agreed to let him take her home, hoping to avoid arousing her suspicions.
âMy heart was beating 100,000 times a minute but it didn’t notice a thing,â she says.
Even now, barely a day goes by without Gires thinking about Sobhraj, and the fear persists.
âI need to know that he is between four walls. The idea that he is free terrifies me. What could he do now that he knows I knew? she says.
– The policeman –
Sompol Suthimai is 90 years old now, but memories of his “most interesting” case remain vivid.
As a Thai police officer working with Interpol, he was on vacation in early 1976 when, under pressure from Knippenberg, the Bangkok Post published photos of murdered tourists.
“I thought to myself: this is a joke, how is it possible that so many people were killed without the police knowing?” Sompol said.
He rushed to Bangkok and met Knippenberg, who was initially suspicious, having tried unsuccessfully to get the Thai police to take an interest in the case.
Eventually, the diplomat passed on to Sompol the evidence package he had amassed with Gires – the newspapers and plane tickets belonging to the victims found in Sobhraj’s apartment.
But Sobhraj had managed to flee the kingdom a few days earlier. Sompol has issued an international arrest warrant.
Sobhraj was arrested in New Delhi in July 1976 and spent two decades in an Indian prison for manslaughter, drugs and theft of tourists.
He went to France after his release and lived there quietly until 2003 before returning to Nepal, where he was jailed for two murders, and has been behind bars ever since.
Sobhraj’s alleged crimes in Thailand have long passed the statute of limitations, and Sompol must regret the failures of his colleagues four decades ago.
“The police weren’t very careful. They made a mess,” he sighs.
– The writer –
From his prison cell, Sobhraj sold his story to a publishing house, and in July 1977 Australian journalists Julie Clarke and Richard Neville were sent to meet him.
They paid guards to have regular access to him, and a strange relationship developed.
“We were also on the hippie route, so we were obsessed with this case,” Clarke told AFP.
During their meetings, Clarke says, the “charming” Sobhraj recounted the murders in frightening detail, without hiding anything.
At one point, he described pouring gasoline on a young Dutchman and setting him on fire after beating him.
“He despised backpackers, he saw them as poor young drug addicts,” says Clarke, now retired and living in Sydney.
âHe considered himself a criminal hero.
Clarke and Neville’s book, “On the Trail of the Serpent,” became a bestseller and was the basis of the television series.
Since then, Sobhraj has denied the crimes, and his French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre said the confessions in the book were “fabricated”.
But Clarke says Sobhraj is trying to “rewrite history” in hopes of getting out of prison.
The few months she spent in the shadow of the killer left her with “traumatic memories”.
“We had nightmares. From his prison, he wrote letters to us and dictated his orders to us. He had also sent people to watch us,” she says.
But his magnetism was evident.
“If you were a student traveler on the hippie trail, how could you not trust this man who was into Buddhism and Hinduism, who dropped Nietzsche in the conversation and gave you advice on where stay?” she says.
Sobhraj’s days of wealthy life are far behind him, and the prison director in Nepal has told him he will die behind bars, according to his lawyer.
But Clarke says his resilience is remarkable – while in prison he survived open heart surgery.
“He won his bet with his mother: to die old,” she said.
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